It’s traditional to think of technology as the epitomy of rationalism, functioning with the mechanical precision of mathematical logic and mindlessly performing laboursaving tasks for its human creators. But Erik Davis argues that the use of technology within our lives has managed to generate a whole new mindset of myths and mysticism which grip the popular imagination even within our supposedly secular, rationalist, post-Enlightenment age.
TechGnosis is an exploration of how this peculiar paradox has come about. When Davis refers to the mysticism of technology, however, he doesn’t simply mean the last 20 years since the advent of the personal computer. His book leaps between different historical points, from the origin of writing to Edison’s experiments with electricity through to the birth of the Internet, in an attempt to show that culture and technology are not actually separate beasts at all.
Instead of seeing technology as a simple extension of ourselves to carry out mundane routines, Davis argues that, since Neanderthal man wielded the first flint, technology has a transformative effect not only on our environment but on the ways that we think about and conceive the world. As such, Davis boldly asserts that technoculture is culture.
Where the myth and mysticism of technology arises is within the undeniable fact that the introduction of any new technology always produces unforeseen side effects and consequences. This is especially true of this century where the complexity of technology has begun to outstrip our ability to completely comprehend it. As Arthur C. Clarke famously put it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Few of us know how a computer or a television actually works – we’re happy enough to simply use it. The negative flipside of such complexity is the mythical attributions we lend to technology, ranging from the fear of the Internet as a corrupting influence and the Y2K problem all the way through to Big Brother surveillance paranoia, UFO invasion fears and government conspiracy theories.
Davis deftly moves through a dazzlingly eclectic and esoteric collection of sources, calling upon the great technological inventions and inventors of the ages and also drawing on such obscure figures as the Greek-Armenian teacher G.I. Gurdjieff and the Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Throughout TechGnosis, he argues that technology isn’t some neutral tool that we create, but rather a force as strange and difficult to comprehend as humans themselves.
TechGnosis is by no means an anti-technological tract – Davis’ dense, playful prose crackles with energy and enthusiasm in his attempt to map the mythos of technology. In doing so, he articulates common conceptions of technology that have remained hidden and opens up new ways of considering the impact of technology within our lives.